Monday, June 11, 2012

Troubles On The Sabbath

23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath.Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

This series of controversies about the Sabbath have little meaning in our modern culture.  We live in a world of twenty-four hours a day seven days a week access and expectation.  It seems odd to us to set aside a whole day to eschew labor of any kind, and Jesus actions strike us not so much as a scandal but as an obvious and practical use of his time.

The tradition of Sabbath goes back to the Old Testament and is one of the Ten Commandments.  The Hebrews traced the practice to the mists of creation.  Since God rested on the seventh day, people ought to follow the same practice.  The decalogue contains no listing of relative punishments or significance so one must assume that do not kill and remember the Sabbath are of equal importance.  So, when Jesus violates their interpretation of Sabbath keeping, it is seen as important affront.  

The first incident is when Jesus and his disciples are walking on Sabbath through the grain fields.  As they go, they are making a snack of some of the wheat as they pass.  First the Pharisees have said things against Jesus in their hearts, but Jesus heard and answered them.  Then the Pharisees ask Jesus disciples why their master behaves so inappropriately, but Jesus heard and answers them.  Finally, the Pharisees directly address Jesus with their complaint since he seems to know what they are saying whether they tell him or not.

"Why do you let them break the Sabbath?"  The Sabbath as practiced by the Jews of Jesus day was a very regimented affair with clearly defined rules.  The disciples may not only have been breaking the rule with regard to work (they were technically harvesting the grain), but also the one that allowed only a certain amount of walking unless it involved going to worship.

Jesus responds in a language that the Pharisees will understand.  He uses a story from what is now the Old Testament.  David, in a pinch, feeds his soldiers with the bread from the temple.  This may seem to us a bit strange for an example as it never refers to the Sabbath but is instead about sacred bread.  For the teachers of the law, though, this would have been a reasonable argument from tradition

And Jesus asks the rhetorical question that closes the conflict.  Certainly God made the Sabbath for people and not the other way around.  When Sabbath traditions cease to be helpful to people they ought to be disregarded.

Jesus doesn't reject the concept of Sabbath, but the rules that had been instituted to protect it from violation.  The next incident will show just how trivial and detrimental the Sabbath rules had become.

Jesus heals the man with a shriveled hand.  The Pharisees consider this work and another Sabbath violation.  If the man had been facing death, Jesus could have healed him, but since his disability could wait to be healed until the next day with no risk of death it had to be delayed.  As far as the rules were concerned, the man would just have to continue to suffer.

We are told that even before Jesus acts they are watching and when Jesus heals the man, he does so with anger at them.  This is the second angry healing in Mark, the first one when the man with leprosy comes and begs healing.  We don't often consider anger and healing together, but in these two cases it is the common motif.  Jesus wants to heal, but others want him to heal for their own reasons and this exposes them to Jesus' wrath.

And so the ones who are so concerned with keeping the Sabbath commandment immediately turn their thoughts to breaking one themselves.

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